Trumpism From the Standpoint of its Victims

11/16/2016 12:17 pm ET Updated Nov 16, 2016
‘HEIL TRUMP’ spray-painted outside of an Indiana church.
‘HEIL TRUMP’ spray-painted outside of an Indiana church.

The election of a racist demagogue was about the reassertion of white supremacy. It’s our duty to resist him.

The greatest challenge that minorities in America face after the election of Donald Trump is the threat to their physical security and the very likely threat of violence directed at their bodies.

This may seem like a hyperbolic statement but I am prepared to defend it.

It is true that there are a host of other issues at stake for the minority in America—economic anxieties, for instance, which curiously seem to be raised in connection to the white working class only. (“Working class” itself is a newly popularized term in mainstream America, but is less frequently applied to the far more distressed brown and black working communities, who, one suspects, are referred to only by their skin color, or as “lower class.”) The pocket-book matters, but it matters much less if there is a knock on the door or an assault on the street. Seen from the standpoint of minorities, Donald Trump’s victory is a clear and pressing danger to their lives, his election the national validation of a man who spouted racist rhetoric at every turn and advocated explicitly xenophobic policies.

Trump’s rhetoric, when translated into the empowerment of white supremacist thugs on the street, means very real violence lay in store for minorities. Trump’s promises, when translated into policies his prodigious bureaucracy will implement, could mean incarceration, police patrols, denied entry into the United States, deportation, and other unconscionable acts of state-directed violence at the bodies of minorities.

As of this writing, there has been a surge of hate crimes across the country. In California, there have been assaults against Muslims, particularly Muslim women who wear the hijab. It is likely that fewer Muslim women will decide to cover their hair from now on, not because of a decision that they freely reached as autonomous individuals, but out of fear of persecution. In Massachusetts, “gas the Jews” and “kill all niggers” were spray-painted on the side of a cliff, reminding us once again that the white-Christian nationalists never forget their original enemies. In Michigan, white school children have chanted “Build the Wall!” to crying Hispanic boys and girls. In “Trump’s America,” the KKK has become so energized that they are holding rallies in American cities.

Physical fear, however, is part of a larger conversation that Trump’s election has triggered. From the standpoint of minorities, the questions around what this election means for Democrats, and the lamenting of the fact that white women lost a champion, are secondary at best. To move away from the physical fears of the most vulnerable to questions about the transition and inauguration is to normalize what happened, and what happened was unprecedented.

But this is the direction the national conversation has moved in, and there have been two responses that minorities have received from the purveyors of elite opinion.

A Call for (False) Empathy

The first response to our worries is the oft-repeated plea for the losers of this election to “reach out” to Trump supporters, and to “understand” their worries. Usually, these entreaties are made by people who are themselves guarded from the worst of what Trump and his cronies may do. From the convenient perch of the moral high-ground, minorities are beseeched to be gentle saints. Notice that the pleas for respect and tolerance are one-sided: Trump supporters are not asked or expected to reach out to minorities, and certainly not to Muslims.

Beyond its hypocrisy, this advice is also dangerous. From the standpoint of one minority, consider just what is being asked here: I am being told to empathize with those who voted to deport me. How do I go about doing this? How do I begin to tolerate those who have endorsed extreme intolerance towards me? Am I to become a party to my own mistreatment? And why is the responsibility upon me—upon those most likely to feel the sharp edges of the American state—to reach out to the people who made violence against me a real possibility?

Assume that we follow this one-way street of reconciliation and respect, and minorities dispel their anger and bet on the essential goodness of Trump’s supporters. Should President Trump do what Candidate Trump promised, should the deportation papers begin to arrive in the mail, should the Department of Homeland Security introduce measures targeting minorities, should United States Customs and Border Protection agents begin turning away Muslims, will Trump voters protest on my behalf? Will they take to the streets and angrily demand my liberties be respected? Will they rush to my defense when the hounds are unleashed? The necessity of asking the question provides its own answer. We can discuss dialogue and understanding when minorities are certain that the violence that was promised to them was only theoretical. Until then, the evangelists for tolerance can stop defiling that sacred virtue on the altar of Consensus.

“This Wasn’t About Race.”

The second direction the conversation has taken—hardening into an almost infallible narrative in the press—rationalizes and marginalizes the racism inherent in the Trump campaign by claiming it is non-existent, secondary, or unimportant. Sophisticated analyses are published every day showing the influence of economic class on Trump’s victory. Where racism is acknowledged, it is relegated to an afterthought rather than the central force that brought Trump to power.

To either not mention race or to argue that racism was not at the heart of Trump’s victory is to fundamentally misunderstand both what racism is and what economic class is.

For starters, race and class are inextricably linked: racism is a function of class, and class is a function of racism. The slaves brought here in 1619 were an economic category of people, reduced to being the property of others, tabulated and evaluated for their price on a market, and lawfully regulated in contracts and bills of sale. Article I, Section 9 of the Constitution forbid the US Congress from restricting the slave trade until 1808, thereby prohibiting the American government from interfering with what was deemed an economic transaction.

Indeed, the reason why the plantation owners of the Southern oligarchy switched from their earlier reliance on indentured servants to their enslavement of black Africans was because they did not want poor whites to think that they were equal to poor blacks. A wedge had to be driven between the lowest members of the economic ladder, to convince the impoverished white man that he was far superior to the impoverished black man. “Instead of importing English-speaking slaves from the West Indies, who were more likely to be familiar with European language and culture,” writes Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow, “many more slaves were shipped directly from Africa. These slaves would be far easier to control and far less likely to form alliances with poor whites.” In addition, because the majority of free whites lived in poverty, the South gave them special privileges like access to Native American land, in effect raising them into an economic class above that of slaves. Alexander’s conclusion: “Poor whites suddenly had a direct, personal stake in the existence of a race-based system of slavery.”

To make this economic ordering of society legitimate, the ideology of white supremacy was contrived to maintain the racial hierarchy. It did this by selling the pernicious claim that the darker-skinned were inferior, and that this was the natural order of the universe. An intellectual artifice was constructed to support this idea of white supremacy, replete with pseudo-science and alternative sociologies. Because the superiority of whites was an entirely alien and false narrative, with no basis in science, history, or biology, it had to be buttressed by moral authority, which was found in the Bible, in the press, in the university, and among political leaders. What we think of as race—the arbitrary social classification of human beings according to skin color—was entirely a byproduct of white supremacy. Race is the child of racism, not its parent.

Placed above blacks, and brainwashed into believing that they were superior because they were white, poor and working-class whites knew that no matter how terrible their lives became, no matter how impoverished or malnourished they were, at least they were not black. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal—the greatest economic program in American history—was crafted deliberately to exclude the black population. Before the financial crisis, low-income black and Hispanic families were specifically targeted by vulturous banks and mortgage agencies, and as a result, the financial crisis disproportionately affected the wealth of minority communities. Today, black and hispanic households have the lowest median incomes of all racial and ethnic groups in the United States. To isolate class and study it independent of race, in addition to blinding one to the history of the United States, makes the crucial error of believing that the laws of economics are independent of the racial prejudices of society.

A class vote in America is by definition a race vote. This election was not a white working class uprising at all; recall that most of the working class and most of the poor actually voted for Hillary Clinton, not Donald Trump. This election was the white man reasserting his historic American privilege: to always be above the lowest rungs on the ladder, a sacred pact that he felt was eroded (if only psychically) under the specter of a black president. Never-mind rationally comparing economic plans or health care plans and voting in one’s narrow economic self-interest; this was about the reimposition of a long tradition in this country, of keeping the uppity coloreds in their place.

A recurring argument that begins with the statement “this wasn’t only about race” usually ends with the evidence that a large swath of voters backed President Obama in 2012 and Donald Trump in 2016. This is then taken to show that there was minimal or negligible racial animus on the part of Trump supporters. Again, this is to mistake just what racism is.

Let’s start with what racism is not. It is not some kind of immutable, observable label an individual wears. It is not a box that one falls into, or a basket for that matter. When someone says, “this wasn’t only about race,” they are assuming that it is possible for an issue to ever only be about race. The Trump voter inhabited a spectrum of racism: He may have been rebelling against political correctness and railing against the elite without paying a thought to what might happen to Hispanics, Muslims and African-Americans. Or, the Trump voter, wearing blue jeans and a red hat, smiling on his way to the polling booth, filling out the forms, and getting an “I voted” sticker at the end of a long line, may have been planning to attend a Klan rally that very night. For some reason, we forget the banality of racism, its everyday status, its embodiment in ordinary individuals who smile and hug their children when they come home from work.

Each vote being a radically subjective choice, it is difficult (perhaps impossible) to know whether an individual in the polling booth was thinking, “I hope he doesn’t actually ban Muslims” or “I hope he bans them today!” What is indisputable are the signs and symbols of Trump’s race-hatred. The voter who responded to “Build the Wall!” and “Ban All Muslims!” and “They’re rapists” and “I heard he’s a Mexican” and “Obama was not born here” by casting their ballots for Trump was aware of what those words meant, knew who they would target, understood what they signaled, and internalized, by deduction, just what race and color Trump was winking at when he used the word “America” in his slogan, Make America Great Again.

Racism was not some ancillary cause that may have played a role in Trump’s rise—it was the very heart of Trump’s message and his victory.

A House Divided Against Its Most Vulnerable Cannot Stand.

The reason why the fate of the minority ought to be the principal concern of even non-minorities—in addition to the moral and ethical and humanistic reasons—is that the fate of minorities also determines the fate of constitutional republics. The laws of a liberal society must ensure that the minority, who does not have recourse to the protection of large numbers, feels secure and welcomed, otherwise a democratic experiment can implode or transform into a totalitarian nightmare.

The Founding Fathers constructed a system of government that would make it difficult, but not impossible, for a demagogue to assume office because they knew the dangers inherent in the majority’s passions. The institutions they created were designed to impose reason and order upon those passions, to channel them into the productive enterprise that was self-government.

But from the outset, the fragility and fault lines of America’s political institutions were clear. In fact, the only natural check against dictatorship in the United States was not the Constitution—which would constrain a tyrant once in office—but the existence of countless factions with opposing interests who would, it was hoped, prevent one faction from gaining total power in the first place. In The Federalist number 10, James Madison wrote: “the majority, having such coexistent passion or interest, must be rendered, by their number and local situation, unable to concert and carry into effect schemes of oppression.” But if a collection of factions, operating under a strongman who promised them redemption came to power, Madison’s formula would prove ineffective. One wonders how Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and the other delegates to the Constitutional Convention would have changed their plans to form “a more perfect union” had they known about fascism and national socialism.

Trump will threaten those very same institutions the Founders created to withstand his authoritarian impulses. In a democracy, the individual who holds the highest office also shapes the institutions, even as he is shaped by them. Trump’s imprint on America’s system of government will be permanent, and will include irreparable damage of the kind that this republic has never seen. These are not the fears of Reaganism from the 1980s, but of Trumpism and its assorted plots to target minorities, sue journalists, expand libel laws, send out deportation forces, resume torture, kill the families of terrorists, apply religious tests to individuals, and policies we cannot yet foresee. In one year, Trump made what was once disqualifying and ruinous into the new normal. One year from now, the same will be said of the Office of the President of the United States. As the poet John Harington wrote, “Treason doth never prosper: what’s the reason? Why, if it prosper, none dare call it treason.”

The great uncertainty today, from the standpoint of Trump’s victims past, present, and future, is whether the president-elect will be as bad as he might be, whether he will be Silvio Berlusconi or Adolf Hitler. It would be naive, suicidal even not to assume the worst at such a moment. Hitler, in 1922, was not the Hitler of 1939. In one of the very first mentions of Hitler in The New York Times, dated Tuesday, November 21, 1922, here is what it said:

Several reliable, well-informed sources confirmed the idea that Hitler’s anti-Semitism was not so genuine or violent as it sounded, and that he was merely using anti-Semitic propaganda as a bait to catch masses of followers and keep them aroused.

The covers of economic anxieties, of infrastructure spending, of deal-making, should not be used to mask the reality of the United States government being turned into a party-state run by a racist demagogue. For those among us who are most vulnerable, there is no solace to be found in arguments that try to reduce our fear by claiming it is irrational. The instinct for self-preservation is the most rational of all instincts, and we know that when the Trump Administration metes out violence against us, his violence will be operationalized by a banal bureaucracy hidden behind fortresses of power and conducting its day-to-day business away from the eyes of the common citizen. It will be carried out by Eichmanns, not by Hitlers. To grow complacent now is to aid the forces of despotism, and to undermine both the dignity and the life of the individual in a country suddenly hostile to both.

From the standpoint of Trump’s victims, this is a moment that calls for resistance.

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